The Hammer of God by the late Swedish Lutheran Bishop Bo Giertz is not only one of the greatest works of Christian fiction ever written, but my personal favorite. My seminary advisor, the late Dr. Ralph Quere, used to read this book over every year. He had those of us in his advisee group read it, too. And I make it a point to re-read it as often as I can.
There is no better way I've found to keep it straight in my own mind what the Gospel is, and what it is not, and where the greatest pitfalls for a preacher truly lie.
I urge you to read it for yourself. But this video is a summary of the first part. I think you'll see why it's so great and so helpful- especially for a person who suffers from scrupulosity.
Here you'll have it plainly laid out what God has given the Church to preach, and what the heart and core of the Christian faith truly is. Anything else is a counterfeit.
This is a summary of the first of the three stories.
It's been a while since I've shared a video from Pastor George Borghardt of Higher Things, the confessional Lutheran youth ministry that does such a fine job. But this one is special. It makes a point American Christians and Western Christians generally don't seem to get, and with which Christians who struggle with OCD have particular problems.
First, it's special because Pr. Borghardt does such a great job of explaining something that's important for us to understand, but incredibly hard to keep straight: that the Gospel is outside of us. It doesn't call on us to do anything! It doesn't call upon you to do something in order to make God gracious to you. It's the objective fact that God is going to be your gracious heavenly Father in spite of you- because of what Jesus has done.
Oh, it produces a response, all right. But it produces that response. It does not call upon us to produce it- and that's a huge difference!
You cannot make God more "for" you than He already is in Christ! No amount of trying, no amount of striving, no amount of achieving or believing or humbling yourself or jumping through any hoop whatsoever is the answer to fear or doubt or unbelief. The answer is that God already has you covered even though you don't deserve it and haven't earned it- and cannot deserve or earn it! That's what makes it the Gospel!
If you had to do something- anything- to make it true, it would be Law. But Gospel is always something that is true no matter how you respond to it. The Gospel is true even for unbelievers. That they refuse to benefit from it doesn't make it any the less true!
An unintended bonus in this video is the dog. Pastor Borghardt is trying to concentrate on saying what he has to say while his dog sits there coveting his Cheetos. Every once in a while Pastor Borghardt puts one on the desk for the dog to eat- but doesn't notice that it's out of the dog's reach. So the dog tries and strains and struggles- and usually fails. At the end of the video, he finally reaches one. But throughout the video, the dog is trying and trying and trying to get that Cheeto. It's a good model of the way we see our relationship with God- as a struggling to achieve, to make something true that isn't true.
But grace is the opposite of that. Grace is something which by definition never has to be striven for or achieved. It's something that is true already- not because of what we do but because of Who God is in Christ.
There are no "ifs" in the Gospel. The Gospel is always an "is." And faith is never something we do in order for something to happen. Good grief- the unnecessary pain that people go through because well-intentioned preachers and fellow Christians tell them the falsehood that they somehow have to make themselves worthy before God will (or even- blasphemy of blasphemies- can!) be gracious to them!
It's the news that God has us covered even in our sin and failure and unbelief- that even these, and even the obstacles we encounter in our lives, are not things it's up to us to overcome but rather things which God Himself uses to get us to where He wants to be. And the Gospel is never a set of instructions. Instead, it's Good News- not about what God will do if we do a certain thing, but of what God will do no matter what we do or don't do.
The Gospel, as Luther reminds us, is always outside of us. That's why the most Christian of all prayers, and the most believing, is always, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!"
The Answer to Fear isn't Believe More - HT Video Short - YouTube
Any Christian who has an interest in mental health issues, let alone struggled with them, is aware of the problems caused by ignorant teachers. All too often well-intentioned pastors and others sound off on subjects they know very little about- and do a great deal of damage.
I've mentioned Neil Anderson and the damage his approach to OCD can do. He has no concept of the biological basis of OCD, and as a result his books often make the situation of Christians who are afflicted by it worse rather than better. "Christian counseling" generally needs to be approached with discernment. Because a person is a Christian doesn't mean that he or she has the proper credentials, experience, background, or knowledge to be of help.
Of course one also needs to be aware of the background and presuppositions of teachers and therapists who do have those credentials. The presuppositions of many psychologists and schools of psychology are incompatible with the Christian faith. That should not lead us to reject psychology as such. Rather it calls for discernment, and for an informed examination of those presuppositions in light of Scripture. It would be hard, for example, to think of anything as compatible with biblical Christianity as the methods and assumptions of cognitive psychology. That doesn't mean that every practitioner of cognitive psychology is spiritually sound. But if he or she is not, cognitive psychology is not the reason!
One tool which has received quite a bit of attention in our culture- and quite a bit of badly-informed push-back from Christians- is mindfulness. This is a practice, it's true, which originates in Buddhism, and it's true that Buddhism sees the annihilation of desire and consciousness as desirable. Obviously, Christianity doesn't agree. Dealing with mindfulness and meditation and similar practices, therefore, calls for caution and discernment. Those committed to New Age practices or to Buddhist philosophy are not safe navigators in such waters.
But mindfulness as such is the exact opposite of the annihilation of consciousness. This is a point which many Christians miss. The idea is to clear the mind not of reason or rationality but of the clutter which prevents us from giving full attention to the moment. As it happens, Buddhism argues that when is washing dishes, for example, one should pay attention to the dishes, to the dishrag, to the water, to the temperature of the water, and not to whether one needs to pick up some milk at the store this afternoon or can wait until tomorrow.
In most cases, doing so is no big deal, of course. We all have all sorts of nonsense running through our minds at the same time and we are barely aware of most of it. Without even beginning to become involved with all that annihilation of consciousness business, common sense says that it's best to do one thing at a time. Contrary to what HR offices seem to believe, nobody multitasks very well. If a person does two or three things at once, he will do none of them as well as if he were concentrating on only one.
For some people- those with ADHD, for example, who for biological reasons have trouble with concentration anyway, or those with OCD, who are tormented by obsessions- the skill of concentrating on the matter at hand is of obvious benefit. It's for that reason that many psychologists- including Christian psychologists- often recommend mindfulness to such people as a way of dealing with their particular problems in life.
Far from recommending the annihilation of consciousness, what these therapists are recommending is precisely enhanced consciousness. There is a paradox here which uninformed Christian pastors and teachers fail to recognize: though mindfulness springs from a tradition which regards consciousness as something to be extinguished, the first step in this process is limiting our consciousness to one thing at a time- which means paying more complete and diligent attention to that one thing than we would be doing if we simply did it absent-mindedly while preoccupied with half a dozen other things- or with a nagging obsession which torments us and robs our life of peace and joy.
It is well to be aware of the Buddhist origins of mindfulness and modern meditation. As I said earlier, one should be very careful as a result about how far one goes down that road and very selective about the teachers and guides one follows even as far as we do travel. But concentrating on the moment and on the matter at hand and making a deliberate effort to keep one's mind clear of worries and distractions and random thoughts and especially obsessions is hardly to buy into Buddhism, and insofar as Scripture advises us in Ecclesiastes that whatever our hand finds to do, we should do it with our might, and in 2 Corinthians to "take every thought captive to obey Christ," it seems hard to argue that a Christian must willingly walk around in a haze with a dozen different thoughts of which she is half aware distracting her from the moment's duty.
Strange that the passage from 2 Corinthians should be understood by so many Christians as advising that they obsess about things! If we're paying attention to the matter at hand and giving it our full attention without a running commentary going on in the background, only then can we give it our full attention.
Yes, mindfulness involves listening to what's going on between our ears "non-judgmentally." But that doesn't mean without discernment. It simply means accurately perceiving the thought, without gloss or commentary- and then acting according to our values. It isn't enough simply to say that this doesn't conflict with the Christian faith. It's hard to see how it doesn't mean living more fully and completely and intentionally in accordance with it.
This is something which anyone who takes their faith seriously ought to understand more or less automatically. Tragically, too few Christians, especially in America, do. While doctrine is often seen as dividing Christians, the opposite is the case. Doctrine is what unites us. Doctrine, after all, is nothing more or less than another word for teaching, and the crucial in consequences between believing sound and unsound teaching are enormous.
They're enormous because unsound teaching has the potential to separate us from Jesus. That Jesus is God is a doctrine. It isn't important to get that right because being right feels good. It's important because otherwise, He couldn't have died for our sins.
That Jesus is truly human is important. It's important because otherwise, He couldn't have died at all. And just as importantly That faith and even our good works are gifts rather than achievements (Ephesians 2:8-10) is a doctrine. And it's important if we're going to put our trust in God's grace rather than our own merits. A realistic, biblical doctrine of the Lord's Supper is important not only lest we are deprived of a powerful, objective reminder that Jesus died not only for the world but specifically for us, but because the very logic on which a symbolic understanding depends ends up denying a real Incarnation and leaving us unredeemed.
Doctrine isn't about "being right," as if that were an end unto itself. It's about bearing in mind that misbelief can at best deprive us of tools God wants us to have, and make our life as Christians struggling daily to put the Old Man to death through repentance so that the New Man can arise through faith harder than it has to be. At worst, it can deprive us of our salvation by making it impossible for us to trust Jesus to save us.
And that's the bottom line. Scripture needs to be studied carefully, and all the tools of solid, proper exegesis need to be implied in understanding it. But as Luther pointed out, the acid test of a teaching is "was Christum triebt-" "what conveys Christ." Jesus and the salvation He came to bestow on the world through the forgiveness of sins, apprehended by faith, is the whole point of the Bible. Nothing that obscures the Gospel can be allowed to stand.
Of course, it's not the correct doctrine that saves us. Biblical, saving faith requires assent and trust as well as knowledge. And where one does believe and trust in the saving Word, emotions will come.
But not all the time. All Christians go through spiritual dry spells, in which feelings are hard to come by. All the greatest Christians of history have written about "the dark night of the soul." But it's those times, rather than in the days when we are filled with joy and being a Christian seems easy, that we grow. God even uses the valleys of our lives for our own spiritual welfare, as tools with which to bring us closer to Him.
Joy and positive feelings are certainly not to be despised. They are among the tools which the Holy Spirit uses to power our Christian lives and commitment. But nobody is saved by emotions, and the Mormons to the contrary, emotions are no test of truth.
Church history is like a pendulum, swinging back and forth between an emphasis on doctrine and truth and an emphasis on feelings. Christians have seemed throughout history to be like the drunken peasant Luther talked about, only in the middle of the road when staggering from one ditch to the other. But it's not as if we could do without either truth or "experience." The former powers the later.
But never look to "experience" or to your emotions as a test of truth or a resource telling you what to believe. Look to the Word. And in interpreting the Word, always remember the acid test of one's own understanding: was Christum triebt.
Directly or indirectly, the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit always are pointing us to Jesus. As long as Jesus is the bottom line, and as long as your lifelong journey keeps coming back to Him for forgiveness and renewal and as your only source of righteousness; along as you keep up your struggle against sin despite having failed, and continue to live the baptismal lifestyle of drowning the Old Self so that the New Self can arise, you'll be safe. Jesus will keep you safe.
But the very Gospel is doctrine. You can't do without doctrine, and to try is not only to deprive yourself of the comfort and strength God supplies and which you desperately need but inevitably to go astray. Just knowing correct doctrine saves nobody. But when we take our eyes off Jesus or allow ourselves to be distracted by teaching which leads us away from Him and throws us back upon our own resources, we put our salvation in peril.
The answer isn't being right for the sake of being right. But the answer is always Jesus, and Jesus only. As long as your eyes are on Him, He will keep you safe.